THE HOTEL EL DORADO was a brand-new, five-story tourist accommodation--built of unadorned cement block. It had the proportions and mood of a glass-front bookcase, high and wide and shallow. Each bedroom had a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass looking westward-- toward the waterfront for deep-draft vessels dredged in the delta three kilometers away.
In the past, that waterfront had teemed with commerce, and ships from all over the planet had delivered meat and grain and vegetables and fruit and vehicles and clothing and machinery and household appliances, and so on, and carried away, in fair exchange, Ecuadorian coffee and cocoa and sugar and petroleum and gold, and Indian arts and crafts, including "Panama" hats, which had always come from Ecuador and not from Panama.
But there were only two ships out there now, as James Wait sat in the bar, nursing a rum and Coca-Cola. He was not a drinker, actually, since he lived by his wits, and could not afford to have the delicate switches of the big computer in his skull short-circuited by alcohol. His drink was a theatrical prop--like the price tag on his ridiculous shirt.
He was in no position to judge whether the state of affairs at the waterfront was normal or not. Until two days before, he had never even heard of Guayaquil, and this was the first time in his life he had ever been below the equator. As far as he was concerned, the El Dorado was no different from all the other characterless hostelries he had used as hideouts in the past--in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in San Ignacio, Mexico, in Watervliet, New York, and on and on.
He had picked the name of the city where he was now from an arrivals-and-departures board at Kennedy International Airport in New York City. He had just pauperized and deserted his seventeenth wife--a seventy-year-old widow in Skokie, Illinois, right outside Chicago. Guayaquil sounded to him like the last place she would ever think of looking for him.
This woman was so ugly and stupid, she probably never should have been born. And yet Wait was the second person to have married her.
And he wasn't going to stay at the El Dorado very long, either, since he had bought a ticket for "the Nature Cruise of the Century" from the travel agent who had a desk in the lobby. It was late in the afternoon now, and hotter than the hinges of hell outside. There was no breeze outside, but he did not care, since he was inside, and the hotel was air conditioned, and he would soon be away from there anyway. His ship, the Bah?a de Darwin, was scheduled to sail at high noon on the very next day, which was Friday, November 28, 1986--a million years ago.
The bay for which Wait's means of transportation was named fanned south from the Gal?pagos Island of Genovesa. Wait had never heard of the Gal?pagos Islands before. He expected them to be like Hawaii, where he had once honeymooned, or Guam, where he had once hidden out--with broad white beaches and blue lagoons and swaying palms and nutbrown native girls.
The travel agent had given him a brochure which described the cruise, but Wait hadn't looked inside it yet. It was supine on the bar in front of him. The brochure was truthful about how forbidding most of the islands were, and warned prospective passengers, as the hotel travel agent had not warned Wait, that they had better be in reasonably good physical condition and have sturdy boots and rough clothing, since they would often have to wade ashore and scramble up rock faces like amphibious infantry.
Darwin Bay was named in honor of the great English scientist Charles Darwin, who had visited Genovesa and several of its neighbors for five weeks back in 1835--when he was a mere stripling of twenty-six, nine years younger than Wait. Darwin was then the unpaid naturalist aboard Her Majesty's Ship Beagle, on a mapping expedition that would take him completely around the world and would last five years.
In the cruise brochure, which was intended to delight nature-lovers rather than pleasure-seekers, Darwin's own description of a typical Gal?pagos Island was reproduced, and was taken from his first book, The Voyage of the Beagle:
"Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life. The dry and parched surface, being heated by the noon-day sun, gave to the air a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove: we fancied even that the bushes smelt unpleasantly."
Darwin continued: "The entire surface ... seems to have been permeated, like a sieve, by the subterranean vapours: here and there the lava, whilst soft, had been blown into great bubbles; and in other parts, the tops of caverns similarly formed have fallen in, leaving circular parts with steep sides." He was vividly reminded, he wrote, ".... of those parts of Staffordshire, where the great iron foundries are most numerous."
There was a portrait of Darwin behind the bar at the El Dorado, framed in shelves and bottles--an enlarged reproduction of a steel engraving, depicting him not as a youth in the islands, but as a portly family man back home in England, with a beard as lush as a Christmas wreath. That same portrait was on the bosom of T-shirts for sale in the boutique, and Wait had bought two of those. That was what Darwin looked like when he was finally persuaded by friends and relatives to set down on paper his notions of how life forms everywhere, including himself and his friends and relatives, and even his Queen, had come to be as they were in the nineteenth century. He thereupon penned the most broadly influential scientific volume produced during the entire era of great big brains. It did more to stabilize people's volatile opinions of how to identify success or failure than any other tome. Imagine that! And the name of his book summed up its pitiless contents: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Wait had never read that book, nor did the name Darwin mean anything to him, although he had successfully passed himself off as an educated man from time to time. He was considering claiming, during "the Nature Cruise of the Century," to be a mechanical engineer from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, whose wife had recently died of cancer.
Actually, his formal education had stopped after two years of instruction in automobile repair and maintenance at the vocational high school in his native city of Midland City, Ohio. He was then living in the fifth of a series of foster homes, essentially an orphan, since he was the product of an incestuous relationship between a father and a daughter who had run away from town, forever and together, soon after he was born.
When he himself was old enough to run away, he hitchhiked to the island of Manhattan. A pimp there befriended him and taught him how to be a successful homosexual prostitute, to leave price tags on his clothes, to really enjoy lovers whenever possible, and so on. Wait was once quite beautiful.
When his beauty began to fade, he became an instructor in ballroom dancing at a dance studio. He was a natural dancer, and he had been told back in Midland City that his parents had been very good dancers, too. His sense of rhythm was probably inherited. And it was at the dance studio that he met and courted and married the first of his seventeen wives so far.
All through his childhood, Wait was severely punished by foster parents for nothing and everything. It was expected by them that, because of his inbred parentage, he would become a moral monster.
So here that monster was now--in the Hotel El Dorado, happy and rich and well, as far as he knew, and keen for the next test of his survival skills.
About the book:
Galapagos takes the reader back one million years, to A.D 1986, where, thanks to an apocalypse, a small group of survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave, new, and different human race.
Considered to be one of his best novels, Vonnegut's black humor, satiric voice, and enthralling imagination make this one an amazing ride.
Snippet from All Our Names
- Dinaw Mengestu
Snippet from The Buried Giant
- Kazuo Ishiguro